Finkel (Lucian Perkins)
David Finkel says he wrote 'Thank You for Your Service' because many of the troops he interviewed for his previous book began to talk to him about the difficulties of readjusting stateside. (Book jacket courtesy of Sarah Crichton Books, Macm)
Finkel won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism for a three part series in the Washington Post about an U.S.-funded program to encourage democracy in Yemen.
In David Finkel’s new book, “Thank You for Your Service,” a follow-up to “The Good Soldiers,” the men of the 2-16th Infantry Regiment have left Iraq behind, but their war is far from over. At home, the soldiers are still battling, in what the book calls the “after-war.” The enemies are traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and Finkel documents the wreckage those cause in the lives of soldiers and their families.
In “The Good Soldiers” Finkel documented the lives of the men of 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division of Fort Riley, Kan., as they fought during the surge in Iraq. For “Thank You for Your Service,” Finkel embeds with the soldiers at home.
“The war is over in Iraq, it’s about to be over in Afghanistan, but the after-war is not even close to being over,” Finkel said. “It’s ongoing.”
Q. Why did you choose “Thank You for Your Service” as the title of the book?
A. “Thank you for your service” has become such a ubiquitous phrase. People say it sincerely, but my sense is, from talking to soldiers, a lot of people say it without thinking much about it. If you read the book, in between the covers, these are some of the people you are saying ‘thank you’ to for their service. And this is some of what you are thanking them for ... That’s the reason for the title. Read the book and you will know who you are thanking, and what you are thanking them for.”
Q. Why did you decide to embed with the soldiers stateside?
A. After I finished [“The Good Soldiers”], many of the people I had spent time with in Iraq began contacting me, and talking to me about the difficulties they were having now that they were back home ... the anxiety they were feeling, the depression, the questioning of mission. In some cases, suicidal thoughts. At some point, enough people contacted me that I realized that what I had done is written the first half of the story. And the second half deserved to be written, and that’s what this book is. It’s the second volume of going to war. This one is about the after-war. It’s about coming home.
People have an awareness of how PTSD affects soldiers, but the book also depicts how the soldiers’ families are coping. How does PTSD affect their spouses and families?
A. Well, from the reporting I did and the people I got to know ... it is clear to me that no one knew what they were getting into. And how could they really? You don’t really know what war is until you arrive at war. And you don’t really know what the after-war is until you have come home and you are dealing with that, as well. But the book doesn’t just detail in intimate degrees what is going on with soldiers, but with wives and children as well, because they are all part of it. They were trying to regain some sense of control over lives that were suddenly feeling a little lost to them. Their lives had become reactive, a reaction to the trauma suffered overseas and it didn’t end overseas. It came back here and it continues to define their everyday actions. ... There are plenty of women, plenty of wives and girlfriends, who have been traumatized, as well. The women back here, they play a central role in this. They are not bystanders at all. Their own trauma is real, and their own attempts at healing are real. And their own strength is essential to what is happening in so many American families.
Q. What is the after-war that you refer to in the book?
A. The after-war is ... the battles that go on after the war its over. It’s a much more private thing. There is a line in the book, something like, “If the truth of the war is that you are in it for the guy next to you, the truth of the after-war is that you are basically on your own.” I’ve found that to be the case with all of the folks I have spent time with over these past couple of years. They have come home, but in so many cases, their lives now as they deal with this is a pretty lonesome existence. They kind of keep it to themselves. They don’t talk a whole lot about it, but it’s there in mind all the time. People move on, people scatter. Some people stay in, some people get out. So it’s almost like the war, and the experience of the war, when you are in it, it’s everywhere. It’s all around you, but when you come home, it becomes very much part of your interior. I just know spending time with this folks, there was a real loneliness to what they were going through.
Q. What do you hope people will take away from reading the book?
A. I hope they will get to know these people and like them. And have them, and what they are going through, in mind. Turn the idea of PTSD or TBI or all these things we read about statistically or analytically, into something that has a face on it. It has a face and a soul. It’s not this ongoing story about an illness or a disorder. It’s a story about people.